'A Second Freshman Year': Harvard’s Transfer Students
Davis, who transferred to the College after spending her first year at West Point, said her sophomore year in Cambridge felt like a “second freshman year.”
“It wasn't until the beginning of my junior year that I actually considered myself a Harvard student instead of just someone that goes to Harvard,” she said. “It felt like in order to find myself at Harvard, I had to forget the part of me that I had built up at West Point over the past year.”
Like many transfer students—who make up less than 1 percent of the total undergraduate body—Davis said the transition was at times difficult and socially isolating.
“Everybody in the House kind of already had a friend group. It's not they're not open to meeting people. They’re friendly. But it's that most people have kind of established who their close friends are,” she said. “I think you’re not necessarily looking for new friends like you were freshman year, so it’s harder to build deeper connections.”
Davis is one of roughly one dozen transfer students that Harvard admits every year. Though the University has various support systems in place—a transfer student orientation, as well as transfer peer advising fellows—transfer students say that, often, it is up to them to fully integrate into life at the College.
Before transfer students face the challenge of adjusting to Harvard, they must tackle the obstacle of a lengthy transfer application process.
Students interested in transferring to Harvard must complete a minimum of one full academic year of college and a maximum of two. The transfer application requires essay responses, college and high school transcripts, college teacher recommendations, and high school standardized test scores.
The Harvard College Transfer Admissions Committee reviews all applications. The College Admissions website states that “The committee looks for a clearly defined academic need to transfer, a proven record of high achievement, and strong faculty recommendations.”
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said the number of transfer students the College accepts varies, though it has hovered around a dozen each year.
“We’re given a number every year. Because of our very, very high graduation rate, the College needs to make a decision every year on what it will do with transfers. I think what we’ve been able to do recently is to admit roughly twelve transfers, and we’ve had somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,400 or 1,500 applications,” he said.
Because so few Harvard students enter the College after their freshman year, some transfers said they had to take it upon themselves to find their niche at the school.
Though Harvard holds a transfer student orientation and installs transfer PAFs, most of the time, transfer students said assimilating at Harvard happens organically: through residential Houses, classes, and extracurriculars.
Abbey M. Thornhill ’17, who transferred to Harvard from Wake Forest University, said her varsity field hockey team was a tremendously helpful resource.
“I was really lucky to have a good team, and they turned out to be my friends, because you are working toward the same goal together,” she said.
When Gillian Y. Hess ’18 transferred from Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business her sophomore year, she said she made many friends through her classes.
“I feel like at Harvard, there's such an emphasis on making friends through extracurriculars, but in my classes, people needed to do the psets together, so I was like, ‘Hey, I'm Gillian, and I'm a transfer student. Would you like to work on the pset together?’” she said.
Transfer students are also sometimes assigned to live with other transfer students, which undergraduates said can help with the transition.
“My roommate, which they assigned randomly, was another transfer student, and she ended up becoming my best friend and one of my current roommates. My other best friend was also a transfer student, and half of my casual friends were transfer students,” Davis said.
At the same time, Thornhill said that it was sometimes hard to make close connections with the other transfer students.
“I think a part of it is that there are people from all different backgrounds who wanted to do different things, since I think Harvard didn’t want, say, 17 transfer students with the exact same interests. So a natural consequence was that we didn’t all become really close,” she said. “That’s good in the sense that we didn't just become ‘the transfer student group,’ but rather that we all assimilated to the culture as a whole.”
Despite the difficulties of transferring, many transfer students said Harvard’s liberal arts education, learning philosophy, and extracurricular opportunities are more than enough enticement to make the change mid-college worth it.
Elena Y. Wu-Yan ’19, a transfer from the University of Pennsylvania, said she thought her former college’s pre-professional atmosphere left little room for her passion for jazz saxophone.
“I just felt like the arts scene overall [at UPenn] wasn’t as big as I would have expected it to be—and specifically for jazz, too—so I just wanted to be somewhere where arts were much more vibrant and like a thing on campus,” she said.
Similarly, Hess said she thought the pre-professional emphasis of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business was too restrictive.
She had tried to take a higher-level economics course, but the university had prevented her from doing so because she was enrolled in the business school. Hess tried to transfer to the Georgetown College of Arts and Sciences, but the school told her she would have to wait until the end of the year and that there was no guarantee of a transfer.
“So I was thinking, ‘If I do apply to transfer to my own school, I don't know if it's worth it, and I might as well fight to transfer elsewhere...Harvard definitely gives me a lot more flexibility in terms of course diversity,” she said. “I was also attracted to its economics department.”
Alexandra Abrahams ’18, who transferred from Oxford University junior year, said Harvard’s teaching philosophy suited her learning style more than Oxford’s.
“One of the reasons why I transferred was because the method of teaching and learning at Oxford didn’t suit me at all,” she said. “I had thought that the tutorial system was going to be great, but I didn’t know that I would be spending most of my time in the library with a list of books to read and an essay to output.”
Despite Wu-Yan’s desire to attend a school with more arts opportunities, she said news of her acceptance to Harvard was bittersweet, because she felt reluctant to leave the friends she had made during her two years at UPenn.
Her decision to accept Harvard’s offer came after weeks of contemplation. Wu-Yan said she was finally persuaded to transfer once she realized she would be gaining more friends instead of replacing the friends she had made at UPenn.
According to Hess, one of the most common questions transfer students get is whether they regret not having the full, four-year Harvard experience.
“Looking back, I don't regret my decision at all,” Hess said. “I don't think I would have been able to handle coming in as a freshman. At Georgetown, I learned so much about myself, about the world, and about other people, and I took that knowledge and applied it to Harvard. And if I had not had that year at Georgetown, I definitely wouldn't be the same person I am today.”
—Staff writer Benjamin E. Frimodig can be reached at email@example.com.—Staff writer Truelian Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @truelian_lee.
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